Find common ground
I barely listened to the friendly front desk attendant as she outlined the various hotel amenities. Her voice was drowned out by the voices in my head, saying things like, "You're not going to fit in with these guys," "You are an outsider," "You should just stay in your room." But after I checked into my room the night before my keynote presentation to the Pennsylvania Association of Sewage Enforcement Officers, and gave myself a pep talk, I made my way down to the reception.
I'm one of those people who's far more comfortable in front of an audience of 150 people than making small talk with three. (I learned I'm not alone in this plight as I chatted with someone at an HR networking event last week. She's preparing for a TEDx talk yet felt a little uncomfortable asking if the seat was taken at the breakfast table. We found an immediate kinship in our shared dislike of small talk.) When I get nervous, I tend think about how different I am from the others. But I'm much better off if I think of how we're similar.
Of course, the reception wasn't as bad as I feared. I didn't know anyone there, but I had talked to several board members in preparation for my time management talk, so I asked the administrator to point out one of the members I had spoken with. I waited for a pause in the conversation and introduced myself to the board member, and then he introduced me to the other members at his table and we went from there. I met someone who's from the same part of Ohio as some of my family members. Somebody else told me about a job he was working on in my hometown. They shared some drinking stories that I had nothing to contribute to, and I remained silent during a brief foray into Star Trek, but otherwise I participated in most of the conversation.
If you also get intimidated in networking situations, commit to finding common ground.
Shake hands. Ever since I learned you can establish the same level of rapport with a handshake as with three hours of continuous interaction, I've made this a priority. Shake hands and you already have a shared experience.
Start with why you're there. You have something in common that you're both in the same place at the same time. Figure out why.
Ask about where they've come from. Maybe you know someone from that same place or have visited there before. Maybe they grew up in a familiar place or went to a school you have some connection to.
Pay attention. If they mention "I had to take my daughter to school" you can ask "How old is your daughter?" and then either ask more questions about what activities the daughter is involved in or where she goes to school. Or you might share an insight into your own family. People enjoy talking about themselves, and it's often far more interesting to ask a non-threatening question about something they've brought up about their personal life than it is to talk about sports or the weather.
Talk about the future or past. Bring up something you're looking forward to. "I can't wait for spring. I'm counting down the days till our trip to __________. Have you ever been there?" or "I'm looking forward to seeing the sequel coming out next weekend. Did you happen to see the original?"
Nervous or feeling like an outsider? Find common ground.
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